Elsa Morante was born in 1912 to an unconventional family of modest means. She grew up with an independent spirit, a formidable will, and a commitment to writing—she wrote her first poem when she was just two years old. During World War II, Morante and her husband, the celebrated writer Alberto Moravia, were forced to flee occupied Rome—Moravia was half-Jewish (as was she) and wanted by the Fascists—and hide out in a remote mountain hut. After the war, Morante published a series of prize-winning novels, including Arturo's Island and History, a seminal account of the war, which established her as one of the leading Italian writers of her day.
Lily Tuck's elegant and unusual biography also evokes the heady time during the postwar years when Rome was the film capital of the world and Morante's counted among her circle of friends the filmmakers Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, and the young Bernardo Bertolucci. A charismatic and beautiful woman, Morante had a series of love affairs—most unhappy—as well as friendships with such famous literary luminaries as Carlo Levi, Italo Calvino, and Natalia Ginzburg. As a couple, Morante and Moravia—the Beauvoir-Sartre of Italy—captivated the nation with their intense and mutual admiration, their arguments, and their passion.
Wonderfully researched with the cooperation of the Morante Estate, filled with personal interviews, and written in graceful and succinct prose, Woman of Rome introduces the American reader to a woman of fierce intelligence, powerful imagination, and original talent.
About the Author
Born in Paris, LILY TUCK is the author of four previous novels: Interviewing Matisse, or the Woman Who Died Standing Up; The Woman Who Walked on Water; Siam, or the Woman Who Shot a Man, which was nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction; and The News from Paraguay, winner of theNational Book Award. She is also the author of the biography Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and are collected in Limbo and Other Places I Have Lived. Lily Tuck divides her time between Maine and New York City.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:October 10, 1939
Place of Birth:Paris, France
Education:B.A., Radcliffe (Harvard); M.A., Sorbonne, Paris
Read an Excerpt
Woman of Rome
A Life of Elsa Morante
The year of Elsa Morante's birth is well known. But, as a favor, in an autobiographical piece she wrote in 1960, she has asked that her biographer not mention the date—not because she is vain but because, for her, one year is as good as the next and she would prefer to remain ageless.1 It is the same year that the Titanic set out on its doomed maiden voyage with 2,224 passengers and crew members on board; the same year that Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy renewed the Triple Alliance; the year of the outbreak of the Balkan War, which set the stage for World War I; the year the Olympic games were held in Stockholm and the twenty-four-year-old Native American Jim Thorpe won both the pentathlon and decathlon (he was later stripped of his medals when it was learned that he had played semiprofessional baseball); in the United States, the year that New Mexico and Arizona became states; the year that the German geologist and meteorologist Alfred Lothar Wegener proposed his theory of continental drift, arguing that the earth's continents had once been a single large landmass and were still in the process of change; and, finally, in Rome, the year that the first activities of the Italian Boy Scouts, founded by Carlo Colombo and known as Giovani Esploratori Italiani, took place.
In a poem Elsa Morante wrote many years later, she claimed to have been born of a "difficult love" at that "bitter hour at midday / under the sign of Leo / on a Christian feast day."2 She also claimed in "Our Brother Antonio," anewspaper piece she published in 1939, that from the very day of their birth, she and her brothers all showed themselves to be extraordinary paragons of virtue. She for example was born with a crown of gold hair so thick and so long that, immediately, the attending nurse who delivered her had to braid and tie it with a blue ribbon.3 (Photos, however, always show Elsa with short, dark hair—so what, one wonders, could she have been thinking of? And what, one also wonders, is true?) At the time of Elsa's birth, the Morante family lived at via Anicia 7 but, soon after, they moved to a small, squalid apartment on via Amerigo Vespucci 42, located in the Testaccio, which was then a working-class district of Rome. Later, Elsa Morante said she grew up in the company of both poor and rich children (the latter no doubt the children of the friends of Elsa's rich godmother, Donna Gonzaga) and thus she learned not to judge anyone by social class but by his or her kindness instead. In fact, the cruelest child she ever met, who made her drink gasoline, was the son of a butler while the nicest was a young patient at Gabelli (a famous Roman hospital which treated only venereal diseases), which, in retrospect, made her wonder what sort of pervert he may have been. Elsa learned the alphabet and learned to write at the same time. She claimed to have composed her first poem when she was two and a half years old:
Un povero galletto
che stava alla finestra
gli casca giù la testa
e va e va e va.
Un gallo piccolino
che stava alla finestra
gli casca giù la testa
e non vede più e più
A little rooster
who was at the window
fell down on his head
and went and went and went.
A small little rooster
who was at the window
fell down on his head
and he nothing nothing sees.
Not only was Elsa Morante a self-taught prodigy, she invented herself. At an early age, too, Elsa Morante imagined herself as other, as a boy. A boy, she thought, could be heroic; a girl could not.
Elsa Morante was the oldest of four surviving children. An older brother, Mario, whom Elsa always inexplicably referred to as Antonio and to whom, later, she addressed her diary, died shortly after he was born. According to Elsa, this Mario/Antonio opened his eyes and saw the light and was so disgusted that he quickly closed them again. According to Elsa's mother, who spoke of him often, comparing him to a famous king, had Mario/Antonio lived, he would most certainly have become a prophet or a genius and brought honor to the family.4 Elsa described her brother Aldo, who was two years younger, as lively and rebellious; she also said that Aldo had a large black birthmark on his forehead (but there is no sign of the birthmark on any of the photographs of him nor does Aldo's son, Paolo Morante, recall seeing a birthmark on his father's forehead5). Marcello, the younger brother, was timid and shy and, early on, according still to Elsa, was prone to amorous attachments; five or six minutes after he was born he developed one for the nurse who delivered him, grasping her finger and not letting go. Finally, there was Maria, the youngest child—younger than Elsa by ten years.
Elsa's mother, Irma Poggibonsi,* came from the town of Modena in northern Italy; she was a schoolteacher and had literary aspirations. She was also Jewish and since she was terrified of being discovered to be Jewish, she made sure her children got a Catholic education. (When World War II broke out, she changed her name to Bisi and went into hiding in Padua, taking the youngest, Maria, with her. Marcello was sent to Tuscany: Aldo was interned in a concentration camp; Elsa, by then, was living on her own in Rome.) Little is known of Irma's family. Her father was a hunchback whom everyone in the family was deeply ashamed of; Irma's mother had repeated breakdowns that manifested themselves in various ways: locking herself up in the bedroom and running back and forth, battering her head against the walls until either her head cracked open or she was knocked unconscious.Woman of Rome
A Life of Elsa Morante. Copyright © by Lily Tuck. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
1 Two Uncles 7
2 Secret Games 23
3 Diary 1938 37
4 The War Years 53
5 House of Liars 73
6 Rome 89
7 Arturo's Island 109
8 Without the Comfort of Religion 129
9 Poetry and Pasolini 143
10 The World Saved by Children 157
11 History 175
12 Aracoeli 197
13 Elsa's Death 213
Works by Elsa Morante 245
What People are Saying About This
“One literary doyenne takes on another in Lily Tuck’s wonderful, sensitive biography of Elsa Morante...This is one not to miss, both for its subject and its exquisite prose.”
“Lily Tuck understands Morante instinctively—it is as if Morante has been waiting for her, as if this book is a part of all that she lived for.”
“Everyone who cares about the literature of the 20th century must be grateful to Lily Tuck for her measured, elegant, and revelatory biography of Elsa Morante.”
“For worldly understanding alone, there is nothing of recent vintage quite like this entrancingly written and compellingly forthright biography.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a superb and very readable biography of Elsa Morante that really kindled my interest in Morante and Rome in the mid-20th Century. Tuck has a novelist's sharp eye for the most telling and delicious details and seems exceptionally well-matched to her subject. The B&N review above has a couple of quibbles I want to quibble with. First, it's obvious to me that this book never set out to be an exhaustive academic biography or a history of Rome during its cinematic heyday. Rather, Woman of Rome is a life that's elegantly, intelligently, and economically rendered. As such, it serves as a compelling introduction to an important--and intriguing-- writer, one who was on the brink of being forgotten in this country. Secondly, Woman of Rome most certainly DOES have footnotes--they're listed in the back of the book!
This book is more fiction created by the author than substantial scholarly work. To attempt to do a biography of such an important literary figure and then fantasize is an insult not only to the author but to the reader as well. As a Morante follower, I am very disappointed with Ms. Tuck's boasting about her connections and her audacity to think that she could get any interview she wanted. Do not bother with this. It is not worth your effort.